Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Maurice Elvey and Neil Brand at The Barbican - The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918)

As Ian Christie said in his introduction, not many of the audience at London’s Barbican Centre would have seen a British silent film from 1918 before and certainly not one of this scale and sophistication.

We were gathered to watch a special screening of Maurice Elvey’s The Life Story of David Lloyd George with live accompaniment from Neil Brand and an introduction not just from the eminent Mr Christie but also John Reed from the Welsh Film Archive. Mr Reed not only played a major role in restoring the film; he found it after a mysterious disappearance for almost 80 years. Thrillingly, because the film had never been seen, it is pretty much in mint condition – this is cinema as it looked in 1918, no digital restoration, just the impression left by the light on the nitrate.

LG gave a five hour speech in Commons for the 1909 budget
Just why this lavish production, trumpeted for months in the trade press, never made it to the screen is not known. Kevin Brownlow suggests that, the war over and Bolshevism as the new threat, the powers that be didn’t want a film that celebrated Lloyd George’s almost socialistic achievements in the areas of pensions, health insurance and equality.

Whatever the political machinations, they can only add to the interest in what is a major historical document - a record of Britain during the Great War and which showed, like Birth of a Nation, that some issues remain unresolved even when consigned to “history”.

The young solicitor
At the end of the film, Lloyd George is seen ruminating about the peace process and resolving to make sure Britain is better prepared for any future conflict before realising that there must never be a “next time”…a highly poignant ending and one which reflected the horror at the blood-letting of the “War to end all wars”. Sadly, we now know the Second World War was birthed in the settlement of the First and Lloyd George lived on to see almost the whole of that mess too.

The film is faithful to its subject and, some childhood inventions aside, uses only dialogue culled from Lloyd George’s speeches and debates. This helps to side-step the pitfalls many subsequent biopics encounter in attempting to convert character and events into neat dialogue…

But then Elevy makes the right choices throughout the film and underpins the documentary by using the actual locations from the small Manchester cottage where Lloyd George was born to the various buildings in the Llyn peninsular where he grew up and began his legal career. There are even some glorious shots of the bay at Portmadoc along with Cadair Idris, one of the highest and most beautiful peaks in this part of Wales (I climbed it last summer: stunning views all round!).

Cadair Idris
Elvey drove miles to film a few minutes of Llandudno in Hindle Wakes… it’d be nice to think he’d formed an attraction for North Wales based on Lloyd George.

Elvey’s commitment to realism extended to huge set pieces re-enacting a number of LG’s major speeches and featuring – literally – a cast of thousands. As Ian Christie pointed out, it would be a long time before any British director again operated on this scale. It’s particularly effective for the Birmingham Town Hall riot when LG’s anti-Boer War stance almost got him strung up: the streets are overflowing with extras… at least I think they were extras!

Birmingham riots
Norman Page also plays a major part in “keeping it real” and makes for an uncanny Lloyd George: there are times when you forget that it’s not the Prime Minister touring the munitions factories or being smuggled out of the Birmingham riot. It’s a measured performance and it has to ring true, especially with the subject matter still very much in power… a pressure performance! At least Michael Sheen’s frequent takes on Tony Blair have generally been after his reign ended (don’t write the old charmer off yet though).

Written by Sidney Low the film covers Lloyd George’s life in meticulous factual detail – what else could you do with a living subject - from his humble beginnings to the Great War victory that seemed sure to guarantee his lasting reputation. Up to this point (Marconi Affair aside) LG had been largely sure-footed but there were to be later complications...

The great orator
Shortly after his birth, LG’s father’s failing health led the family home to Pembrokeshire. His mother moved in with her brother, a man of conscience who greatly influenced LG’s morality. He was also inspired by the preaching of his teacher and in a Griffith’s touch; Elevy shows us brief re-enactments from the scriptures. LG was moved but in a non-conformist and Welsh way - a man of his own people as egalitarian in this film as British movies ever got.

Man arrested for stealing bread...
LG becomes a successful solicitor with his quick intelligence and skilled oratory playing a major part. He marries his childhood sweetheart and a visit to Parliament convinces him to become and MP and, his reputation enhanced by the episode of the LLanfrothen Burial Case, he squeaks past the Tory candidate by 19 votes to become MP of Caernarfon Boroughs

There follows scenes of LG’s passionate debates in Commons (one of which got him suspended for a week) along with the public meetings which stirred the electorate as well as enraging them.

LG is greeted by the ghosts of PM's past... Disraeli on left.
Measured against modern Liberals, LG seemed to be largely free of compromise and with a distinct programme allied to a deep-lying morality. You feel like cheering as he becomes Chancellor and steers through the People’s Budget from 1909-11. This was a key point in the curtailing of both Royal political influence as well as the ability of the House of Lords to block the enactments of the lower chamber. In other words, the elected assembly prevailed and Lloyd George was a great parliamentarian for this alone.

"The workhouse doors open..."
But it is LG’s performance in World War One that is most celebrated and this section covers the last hour or so of the film. LG is shown resolving the ordinance supply issues which so threatened the allied efforts. Rail routes were improved and manufacturing was re-prioritised to ensure higher levels of viable ammunition.

LG takes over as Prime Minister in 1916 and helps to unify the Allies who are soon to include the USA. The films propagandist agenda tips the hat to all involved parties but this was wartime and audiences need sense to be made of the deaths of millions. LG ensures the appointment of General Foch as commander in chief of the allied forces and this is the key appointment as the German forces were finally forced into surrender.

Prime Minister David Lloyd George
It’s a huge film covering a lot of ground but it never drags… Elevy’s inventiveness moves the narrative along and by focusing on snapshots of key events would have touched many a nerve with contemporary audiences. He considered it his best film* and whilst Hindle Wakes is the more enjoyable, this film is a huge accomplishment for the time.

Amongst the supporting cast is the future Mrs Hitchcock, a teenage Alma Reville, as LG’s daughter Megan and there’s also a blink and you’ll miss it cameo from Peggy Carlisle a Liverpudlian lass who played Mary in Hindle Wakes… I think anyway!

Peggy Carlisle cameo?
Neil Brand accompanied the film, and his score included the odd touch of contemporary music to add context all within a more modern composition. It was superbly sympathetic to the story and he played with energy and invention for the full two hours and twenty minutes: a mighty effort!

His score is featured on the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales DVD which the Barbican had kindly placed on sale in their Level 3 Shop (still there if you’re quick). In addition to a 16 page booklet there’s a second disc featuring an introduction from Philip Madoc along with interviews with Kevin Brownlow as well as Mr Brand. It’s also available direct from the Archive where you can also find extensive clips and more details. It is absolutely essential for all aficionados of early British cinema.

Norman Page and Alma Reville with some odd "ducks"
You can only wonder what impact this film would have had if it had been released in 1919. I’m sure the public would have flocked in their millions to celebrate their Prime Minister and Britain would have had a film to celebrate of similar stature to DW Griffith’s epics.

Also, if Birth of a Nation revived interest in certain unpleasant political strands in the US, isn’t it possible that Elvey’s film may have played a similar role in cementing the altogether more positive achievements of liberalism at a time when it was being compromised. The Liberal Party never recovered from the need for Conservative support in the latter years of LG’s premiership and they were soon out-flanked by the Labour Party. Could this film have helped LG’s party to stay more true to themselves?

Just a thought. You can’t buck a long term trend in political culture with a mere film… can you?

*Thanks to Lucy Dee, “Miss Elvey”, for that snippet!

LG working hard with his secretary

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